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Nadia Hassan reads ‘Communicating through the collective unconscious’

Nadia Hassan reads ‘Communicating through the collective unconscious’

Listening | Psychology | 2021-09-12

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In this fascinating second episode of the Essentia Readings podcast, Nadia reads Prof. Victor Petrenko’s work. Nadia’s commentary towards the end is particularly spellbinding! This podcast is available through all major platforms.

The article I’ll be presenting today is by an author whose work has been focused, in part, on the psychology of consciousness and psycho-semantics, problems of the unconscious, altered states of consciousness, ethnic and cross-cultural psychology, and the philosophical issues of psychology. In what I’ll be reading, he explores our current understanding of the collective unconscious, how it functions, the value it presents for humanity, and what we can unlock if we are able to tune into it more actively.

The hierarchical structure of the universal mind

The hierarchical structure of the universal mind

Reading | Cosmology

Antonio Rial, MD, PhD | 2021-09-05

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Spanish science journalist and doctor Antonio Rial delights us with the perspectives acquired after decades studying and communicating science. He regards reality as the image of a hierarchical structure of mental processes, an evolving ecosystem of minds.

The vision of reality posited by Bernardo Kastrup is based on an analogy with multiple personality disorder, or dissociative identity disorder, which offers powerful scientific evidence that several nuclei of consciousness can coexist in one mind. His suggestive philosophical proposal allows us to plausibly imagine a universe formed exclusively by a consciousness that, for reasons unknown to us, dissociates into an infinity of seemingly independent nuclei.

Accepting this idea opens up the possibility to explain the mental structure of the universe by employing the analogy in reverse. We can hypothesize that reality is constituted of dissociated nuclei of consciousness—which we might call ‘nuclei of esthesia’—organized in a network. The term ‘esthesia,’ of Greek origin, means ‘sensitivity’ and refers to the subjectivity necessarily associated with any conscious phenomenon. According to this hypothesis, each nucleus of esthesia experientially perceives its own environment. Each human being is one such nucleus, but I dare to go further: a cell, an organ, tissues, insects and anteaters are also nuclei of esthesia.

A network is the most efficient organization for managing the growth and evolution of a system. This is how our brain works. And networks can be represented by graphs, which are mathematical objects formed by a set of nodes (vertices) that are connected by junctions (edges). We can model complex self-organized systems, conditioned by evolution, as graphs: brain activity, metabolic mechanisms and even the relationships between the components of entire ecosystems. We also find graphs in human creations such as the Internet, social networks, passenger and freight traffic. The interesting thing about a graph is that the interaction between its nodes determines emergent behavior. From this point of view, ‘reality’ would be but a gigantic graph-system of dissociated mental nodes that evolves to preserve itself.

Francesco Vazza, an astrophysicist, and Alberto Feletti, a neurosurgeon, published in 2020 an article in the journal Frontiers in Physics in which they put forward evidence that the brain and the universe are—at different scales—similar entities. The brain and the universe are constituted by nodes interconnected through filaments that self-organize according to similar principles of network dynamics. This way, it is not only what we call ‘life’ that adapts to survive; all of reality is subject to evolution. Evolution is the law that conditions the patterns of activity of networks of consciousness. The ultimate goal of every such network is adaptation for survival and, to this end, they cooperate. What we perceive as reality is an image of this process.

As in any graph system, the networks of esthesia have different hierarchical levels. Large waves of consciousness take precedence over local dynamics and condition the whole. Naturally, our tiny species and all the others that populate our modest planet are nothing more than residual, infinitesimal, fragmented and peripheral echoes of the larger-scale networks of consciousness. Nature tends to protect and isolate the systems that generate the most relevant information. Our brain, for example, is protected by a hard skull that safeguards its complicated organic machinery. This code of nature also operates in our behavior as a species. In ancient times, civilizations protected themselves from their enemies by erecting stone walls.

Following this logic, we are part of a fragmented, interconnected and highly hierarchical mental macro-system that evolves and adapts to survive. Each human being is a small node of one of the vast networks of mentation that make up reality. Our brain is the organ that interprets and filters the fraction of reality to which we have access, a subsystem of three spatial dimensions plus time. Our perception is limited, incapable of capturing the whole of reality. The brain, like everything we perceive, is a representation of mental activity. The substrate of reality is mental activity itself, not the matter that represents it.

The brain is not evolutionarily designed to know reality, but for the survival of the mental ecosystem of which we are a part. Our species perceives a concrete image of each mental nucleus—such as a plant, a frog, a virus or a protein—but these images are mere representations that help us to interact within our survival program. Except in certain circumstances—drug use, meditation, near-death experiences—our brain cannot access the networks of consciousness that we do not need in order to survive. What Homo sapiens perceives as inanimate stars and galaxies are the images of mental processes that are established at higher hierarchical levels. We do not appreciate them as living systems because our species does not need to interpret them that way to survive. Similarly, if we point a finger at Niagara Falls, the cells in our finger will not capture the wonder that we do perceive as humans. What we interpret as ‘dermal cells’ only experience what they need for their survival and that of their hierarchical order.

As Homo sapiens develops instruments of observation, we can appreciate more systems of evolution. With the senses naturally available to us, our species is not able to appreciate, for instance, the evolution and adaptation of our genes. But the development of instruments has allowed science to broaden the spectrum of observation and discover new rules and laws that, in the smallest and the largest, indicate unequivocally that everything is made up of evolutionary nodes and ecosystems related to, and dependent upon, each other. We can imagine that when instruments are developed that allow us to access the quantum universe—the next level of information—we are likely to appreciate more clearly that evolution also affects what we now define as ‘non-living.’ Planets, stars and galaxies will be revealed as evolving systems and as parts of yet other systems on larger scales, which—with this new instrumentation—we will observe as ‘living.’

One of the characteristics of human beings is that we are endowed with meta-consciousness, the ability to reflect. As far as we know, lower systems and nuclei of consciousness—which our brain interprets as organs, tissues, cells, DNA strands, ribosomes or mitocondria—do not need the capacity for reflection to plan their responses. Meta-conscious human intervention thus disrupts the natural ebb and flow of lower-level mental ecosystems. This is the reason why a car, a computer, a bottle, a shoe or a building seem to lack the telltale characteristics of conscious dynamics. The plastic tree we decorate at Christmas is not part of the natural ecosystem of a forest even if we plant it in a forest. The objects that Homo sapiens manufactures lose their ability to behave as nodes of esthesia. However, nature does allow us to interfere with and modify natural conscious systems. We can hack neural networks and alter the mental processes in their various hierarchies, but we cannot create an artificial mental system. We can modify the genetic information of a cell, but we cannot create an artificial cell.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that it is unlikely that human mental patterns are alien and isolated from the system in which all of nature operates. From this point of view, we can infer—at least partially—the intrinsic dynamics of reality as a whole by observing the evolution of economic, social and cultural systems, or even by analyzing the design of the data, logistics and communications networks that human beings develop. Following this logic, death does not exist in a mental system. Homo sapiens already knows that the software of a computer does not disappear when we buy a new computer. Although the Atari brand no longer manufactures its video-game consoles of the 1970s, today any child can again play the iconic video-game ‘Pong,’ very popular at that time. Software does not die, it simply moves to other networks to continue to function.

In our species, the continuous transformation of the nuclei of consciousness that we understand as ‘life’ presents itself in the form of cellular mitosis. It follows that the transition to the hierarchy of consciousness that we call ‘death’ should also be empirically detected as some kind of cellular or genetic modification. The question is: are there genes that are activated in the brain just before death and even postmortem? The short answer is yes. At the University of Illinois, Fabien Dachet and his collaborators have proven that genes linked to neuronal activity are rapidly degraded after death, but up to 12 hours after death the expression of 474 other genes linked to microglia and astroglia—other types of brain cells that are responsible, among other things, for repairing brain tissue damage—increases. Dachet explains that it is not surprising that these cells enlarge after death, but we can speculate that this process also constitutes the image of some mechanism of transformation from one hierarchy of consciousness to another.

Most of nature, on the scale we appreciate, does not need to evolve as a meta-conscious system. Our species has developed meta-consciousness as a product of particular evolutionary pressures and language. As a system, we needed to develop communication among ourselves to cooperate with strangers and survive in groups. The development of language allowed us to implement defense and attack strategies concerning other species in general and other hominids in particular. But meta-consciousness is a failure of the communication system insofar as it slows down the adaptive response. The immune system does not need meta-consciousness to defend our organism. Ants and bees do not need meta-consciousness to communicate and survive. Even our neurons do not employ meta-consciousness to coordinate a response in milliseconds. Peculiarly in our species, automatic responses do not predominate. Nonetheless, we can speculate that other hierarchies of mental systems may have developed meta-consciousness due to their own evolutionary pressures.

The universal mental system as a whole—that which we have historically called ‘God’—will only deal with us as a species insofar as we are a hindrance to the evolution of the mental ecosystems of which we are a part. To use an analogy: our immune system is in charge of destroying bacteria and viruses to maintain the ecosystem of our organism. Each of us is a ‘god’ concerning our liver or our heart, insofar as we can act on these organs to destroy or heal them, intervening in the evolution of their respective ecosystems. We are also ‘gods’ to the other species on our planet. We can destroy them or allow them to survive. And the latter is what interests us so that our ecosystem does not unravel. Respect for nature is part of our intelligent adaptation to avoid extinction.

Most religions defend two postulates that are compatible with understanding nature as interlinked mental ecosystems:

  1. The universe we appreciate through our senses is part of other hierarchically superior mental systems to which—except through faith—we cannot have direct access until we die.
  2. We must act with love to avoid breaking the stability of the mental ecosystem of which we are a part.

There is likely an infinity of ‘gods,’ of larger-than-human consciousness systems that we do not appreciate at the moment. Perhaps the development of quantum instruments will reveal these other ‘lives.’ But if there is a God or there are gods, none of them will care about Homo sapiens unless we disrupt and endanger their homeostasis. Similarly, we only care about the cells of our kidney or our intestine if these organs become diseased and disrupt the homeostasis of our organism. The God of the 21st century is a vast network of consciousness that neither plays dice nor gets bored thinking about us.



Alfuradain, M., Ansari, Q. (2016). Fixed Point Theory and Graph Theory, Academic Press.

Amstrong, K. (2006). A History Of God. Penguin.

Cassidy, Mike. (2020). Biological Evolution, Cambridge University Press.

Chaisson, Eric. (2001). Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature. Harvard University Press.

Chalmers, David. (1996) The Conscious Mind: Towards a Fundamental Theory. Oxford University Press.

Clegg, Brian. (2019). Dark Matter And Dark Energy: The Hidden 95% of the Universe, Hotscience.

Dachet, F., Brown, J.B., Valyi-Nagy, T. et al. Selective time-dependent changes in activity and cell-specific gene expression in human postmortem brain. Sci Rep 11, 6078 (2021).

Djuric, P., Cedric, R. (2018). Cooperative and Graph Signal Processing. Academic Press.

Gardner, James N. (2007). The Intelligent Universe: AI, ET, and the Emerging Mind of the Cosmos. New Page Books.

Goff, P., Seager, W., Allen-Hermanson, S. (Summer 2020 Edition). Panpsychism, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.>.

Green, Brian. (2010). Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory. Norton.

Howell, E. (2008). The Dissociative Mind in Psychoanalysis : Understanding and Working With Trauma, Routledge.

Kastrup, Bernardo. (2014). Why Materialism Is Baloney. Iff Books.

Kastrup, Bernardo. (2019). The Idea of the World: A multi–disciplinary argument for the mental nature of reality. Iff Books.

Kastrup, Bernardo. (2021). Science Ideated: The fall of matter and the contours of the next mainstream scientific worldview. Iff Books.

Kumar, M. (2009). Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality. Icon Books.

Kundu, Subir. (2021). The Evolutionary Biology of Extinct and Extant Organisms. Academic Press.

Kurzweil, Ray. (2013). How to Create a Mind. The secret of human thought revealed. Penguin Books.

Massimini, M., Tononi, G. (2018). Sizing up Consciousness: Towards an objective measure of the capacity for experience. Oxford University Press.

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Plasencia, A. (2021). De neuronas a Galaxias ¿Es el Universo un holograma?. PUV.

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Vazza, A., Feletti, S. The Quantitative Comparison Between the Neuronal Network and the Cosmic Web. Frontiers in Physics. 16 nov 2020

Inducing the mental creation of experiential realities

Inducing the mental creation of experiential realities

Reading | Psychology | 2021-08-29

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Can people—even those ostensibly not hypnotizable—be coaxed into creating entire virtual realities that they then take for facts? Can the same techniques be used to alter our memories of the past? If so, is this significant for our understanding of what reality—the real reality—actually is? Psychologists Prof. Petrenko and Dr. Kucherenko share astonishing results produced by Russian clinical and experimental psychology, which answer these questions in the affirmative.

(Editors’ note: the authors use the word ‘unconscious’ in the Jungian sense: that of psychic realm that lacks higher-order mental functions, such as meta-cognition, but which may nonetheless still be experiential in essence.)

In our studies of altered states of cognition and the unconscious, hypnosis techniques were used to study the effect of emotions on categorization processes [5], the relationship between emotional states and color preferences [6], the ‘semantic blind spot’ phenomenon—that is, the neglect of entire semantic areas during conscious processing due to a hypnotic prohibition of seeing a certain object [7]—and meditation [8], in the laboratory of communicative psychology and psycho-semantics of the Faculty of Psychology, Moscow State University. Moreover, the dynamics of the patient’s personality transformation was studied during the treatment of patients for alcoholism [9]. Many years of research work resulted in the development of a range of suggestive psychological techniques (suggestion methods) that enable various types of work with the unconscious.

Our sensorimotor psychosynthesis technique is a method for immersing a person into a trance state and constructing images that define the patient’s emotional state while in trance and direct the patient’s imagination and behavior. The method includes elements of shamanic and meditative practices, M. Erikson’s non-directive hypnosis [10], neurolinguistic programming [11], and implies the formation of an integral intermodal image of a situation into which the patient is immersed with assistance from a suggester (a therapist, a researcher, or a coach).

The subject continually reports on the focus of their attention, as well as their visual, auditory and other sensory experiences, to the suggester. The subject’s replies to the suggester’s questions provide an opportunity to regulate the visual, auditory and kinesthetic components of the images formed by the suggestion, and the use of synesthesia enables the construction of multimodal images. The active dialogue between the suggester and the patient is the key feature of the sensorimotor psychosynthesis method that distinguishes this method from directive hypnosis, self-hypnosis and other monologue techniques. Each patient in an altered state of consciousness constructs their own reality, which corresponds to their desires and motives, and they exist in it. Therefore, the dialog with the patient is necessary for understanding their state, whereas classical hypnosis usually involves a monologue of suggestion by the therapist. The suggester uses the feedback provided by a dialog to direct the patient’s imagination according to the actual research or therapeutic task. The patient can be immersed into an imaginary situation, such as a spaceflight, or recall events from the past, including early childhood, and even experience an unreal transformation into a powerful animal.

Immersion in a state of trance is of key importance, as the directed imaginative activity is performed during this state and both the patient and the therapist are in a trance. The trance state of the suggester can be defined as controlled trance that induces trance in the patient. The empathic processes of emotional contagion described by H. Bergson [12]—that is, the direct sensing of a living creature’s emotions by another living creature—takes place. These processes define the conceptual core of the sensorimotor psychosynthesis method. The suggester senses the patient’s psycho-emotional state and cooperates with the patient to construct predefined emotions in the latter.

Animals and humans are capable of identifying the state of other creatures from purely external manifestations and even sensing it directly, by identifying with the carriers of these states. S.S. Stepanov, an historian of psychology, describes an illustrative example observed by F. Galton, the founder of psychometry:

Sir Francis performed an original experiment once. Before his daily walk in the streets of London, he made himself believe that he was an abhorrent person hated by everyone in England. He focused on this statement for several minutes, this being equivalent to self-hypnosis, and went for a walk as usual. However, the situation only seemed typical. In fact, the following happened. Francis noticed that scornful and disgusted glances of passers-by followed his every step. Many turned away from him, and he was rudely cursed several times. A lumper in the port pushed the scientist with an elbow when passing by, so that Galton fell into a pool of mud. Even animals seemed to assume a hostile attitude. Galton was passing by a horse in harness, and the horse kicked him in the leg, so that the scientist fell down again. Galton tried to appeal to the onlookers’ sympathy but was amazed to hear the people take the animal’s side. Galton hurried home, lest his experiment with imagination lead to even worse consequences. This true story is described in many psychology textbooks, and it leads to two important conclusions. A human is defined by what he or she thinks of him or herself. It is not necessary to inform others of one’s self-esteem and state of mind. They will feel it anyway [15, p. 15].

Every human who ever interacted with animals has experienced the phenomenon described by Galton. Try to extend your hand to pat a dog at a moment when you fear being bitten: the dog will apparently feel your state and growl at you. Humans largely lose their innate capacity for empathic projection (even though it is still manifested in childhood), apparently due to individualization, and let their consciousness guide them when they try to understand others. However, some adults still possess this capacity, which enables them, for instance, to give a diagnosis instantaneously and recommend a certain treatment. Some possess this capacity from birth, whereas others acquire it after a near-death experience, the so-called shaman sickness, or some other strong physical impact (such as being struck by lightning).

We organized several ethno-psychological expeditions to Buryatia, Tuva and Chukotka, interviewed the local shamans and acquired valuable experience, which allows us to make the following statement: a human’s empathy barriers are shifted during the time of the shaman sickness essential for getting shaman status. A normal person apparently possesses some protective thresholds (similar to sensation thresholds in psychophysiology); otherwise, this person would constantly feel the suffering and emotions of many other people and even animals, and this would be a too-heavy load detrimental to evolutionary adaptation (several powerful shamans known to the authors died relatively young, this being indicative of the heavy load on an empath). These thresholds can probably be lowered after exposure to extreme psychophysiological conditions, and thus people become more sensitive to the emotions of others.

The term ‘trance,’ derived from the Latin verb ‘transire’ (to overstep boundaries), describes a number of diverse altered states of consciousness (ASCs), related to shifting the attention focus from perception and recognition of the external world to the subject’s own internal state. An appropriate typology of the diverse trance states has not yet been developed in psychological research. Trance states include immersion into fantasies; ASC associated with hypnotic suggestion; the creative ecstasy of a painter, poet, musician, or scientist; religious ecstasy perceived as a union with the divine; and the pathological states of consciousness caused by fever, poisoning or alcohol and drug use. Notwithstanding the diversity of trance states, they can apparently be classified with regard to at least two sets of features. The first one is the degree of dis-objectification of the image of the world, the removal of intentionality manifested as the transition from objective forms to internal psychological states. This is characterized by the absence of subject–object contraposition. The second one is the person’s capacity to transcend the boundaries of the individual ego and rise to transcendent levels of perception, the levels of divine or cosmic consciousness. This state is sometimes termed divine inspiration or ‘being in the flow.’ The dis-objectification of existence is called the ‘non-duality’ feeling or unity with the world in Buddhist literature. A range of major characteristics of ASCs can be identified and used to consider these states as an integral phenomenon [16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22].

Our sensorimotor synthesis technique aims for the integration of the activity of the sensory systems according to the structure and logic of the situation being modeled. For instance, the formation of an image of an illustrated magazine in the subject’s mind can be started from tactile sensations: the touch of the glossy paper, the weight of the magazine, the cool pages. The perceptive system that fills the image with components of the visual modality is activated afterwards. The smell of the printing ink and the sound from the shuffling of pages can be included in the image.

The sensorimotor psychosynthesis process does not require a ‘hypnotic inhibition of the brain’ and is not accompanied by a hypnotic sleep state. Therefore, the subject is in a more active state than a subject of classical hypnosis. In contrast to hypnosis, which exploits the hypnotizability of the individual, the sensorimotor psychosynthesis technique does not require this property. Effects similar to those of deep hypnosis can be attained even in poorly hypnotizable individuals. The method can be used in psychological practice and experimental work, in psycho-correction and in psychotherapy; it enables experimental modeling of human behavior in various real-life situations and the formation of susceptibility to hypnosis in poorly hypnotizable persons.

Use of the sensorimotor psychosynthesis technique in medical psychology enables the elimination of obsessions or unhealthy habits, including alcoholism and drug addiction, mobilization of the organism’s reserves during training for sports competitions, or improvement of the patient’s emotional state and immune system activation

V.V. Kucherenko, one of the authors of the present paper, works with patients suffering from a variety of diseases. He works in cooperation with physicians to create a favorable emotional state of the patient, so that the organism’s resistance to the disease increases.

Sports is another area of practical application for the sensorimotor psychosynthesis method. Kucherenko used to participate in coaching work for the Russian bobsledding team. The team members imagined moving through the track while in a trance state, and then reproduced this state during international competitions. This allowed for mobilization without the need for any doping, prevented mistakes during the competitions, and ensured good results.

Use of memories in crime investigations is another area in which the sensorimotor psychosynthesis can be used. The super-memory phenomenon associated with hypnosis has been reported in a number of publications. Memory activation in a potential witness of a crime allows for retrieval of information on specific details of past events. For instance, one of the investigations had the aim of identifying the license plate number and distinctive features of the criminals’ car. The detectives found a truck driver who could have seen that particular car on the road on the day when the crime was committed. Kucherenko gradually put this potential witness into deepening trance and asked him to remember everything related to his driving on that day. It was hard to see the license plate of the car in the twilight, and the driver was asked to ‘relive’ this moment several times, so that he would notice new details and see familiar details more distinctly every time. The license plate was seen at an optimal angle as the car was passing by, so the subject was asked to ‘take a still image’ and then ‘shuffle’ images slowly, a little forward and a little backward, and finally ‘hold’ the ‘photograph’ obtained in front of himself to see the license plate clearly. This information was successfully used to find the car and arrest the criminals.

V.V. Nurkova and D.A. Vasilenko studied the possibility of transforming the images of the past and demonstrated the efficiency of the sensorimotor psychosynthesis method for the correction of autobiographic memory [29]. The psychotherapy techniques developed by Kucherenko were used to immerse the patients into a trance and transform the past [30, 31]. This use of the sensorimotor psychosynthesis method provides a powerful means for manipulating a personality and for the transformation of memories. The practice of rewriting history may hardly stop at the level of an individual. Dystopias such as the all-searching eye of the Orwellian Big Brother will then seem as innocent as child’s play.

Nowadays, the development of psychological techniques is transforming psychology from a descriptive and explanatory science to one that is actively modifying its own objects; a science at the cutting edge of human evolution; a science that can secure the humanization of humankind or undermine our very existence. In addition to Kucherenko’s sensorimotor psychosynthesis method, the human personality can be substantially modified by Eriksonian hypnosis, various techniques of working with autobiographic memory and the collective unconscious, transpersonal psychology approaches that involve immersion into ASCs (S. Grof, A. Mindell, R. Frager, C. Wilbur, and others), and coaching sessions similar to those proposed by C. Rogers [34] and A.F. Alekseichik [35]. The minimization of risks is essential, and we assume that it can be ensured by the implementation of the techno-humanitarian balance principle proposed by A.P. Nazaretyan [36]: the development of technologies should be necessarily controlled or restricted (in the absence of a more suitable term) by newly emerging ethical and moral norms. In this case, one can hope that the sensorimotor psychosynthesis method will remain another powerful tool for positive modification of the human psyche.


*The complete version of this essay was published in the Herald of The Russian Academy of Sciences, Vol. 89, No. 1, 2019.



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  30. A. Vasilenko, Autobiographical Memory As a Constructive Process, Cand. Sci. (Philol.) Dissertation (Moscow State Univ., Moscow, 2017) [in Russian].
  31. V. Nurkova, “Credulous memory: How information incorporates into the system of autobiographical knowledge,” in Cognitive Studies: A Collection of Research Papers, Ed. by V. D. Solov’ev and T. V. Chernigovskaya (Institut Psikhologii RAN, Moscow, 2008) [in Russian], vol. 2, pp. 87–102.
  32. E. Hyman, T. H. Husband, and F. J. Billings, “False memories of childhood experiences,” Appl. Cognitive Psychol. 9 ( 3), 181–197 (1995).
  33. A. Wade, S. J. Sharman, M. Garry, et al. “False claims about false memory research,” Conscious Cogn. 16 (1), 18–28 (2007).
  34. R. Rogers, On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy (Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1961).
  35. E. Alekseichik, Psychotherapy of Life (Institut Gumanisticheskoi I Ekzistentsial’noi Psikhologii, Vilnius, 2008) [in Russian].
  36. A. P. Nazaretyan, Nonlinear Future (Izd. MBA, Moscow, 2013) [in Russian].

On the self-validating nature of idealism

On the self-validating nature of idealism

Reading | Philosophy

Aditya Prasad | 2021-08-22

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In this short and powerful piece, engineer Aditya Prasad attempts to provide an informal argument for why idealism deserves more careful consideration. Briefly: while physicalism is impossible to confirm even in principle, idealism suffers from no such limitation. This intrinsic verifiability makes it a more fruitful avenue of investigation.

Arguments from radical skepticism demonstrate that physicalism cannot be validated to any degree whatsoever. For example, consider the hypothesis that this reality is a simulation designed to behave precisely as a genuine physical reality would. By its very construction, there exists no evidence that could distinguish this hypothesis from physicalism—and thus we cannot calculate the odds of either one being true. The same problem applies to the hypothesis that all of reality suddenly popped into being, fully formed, in this very moment—with only the appearance of a real past (including false memories). Even Occam’s Razor cannot help us here, depending as it does on evidence from a real past for its very justification—a plainly circular endeavor.

This problem of skepticism is well known. The commonly accepted solution is that, in lieu of evidence, we are free (indeed, compelled) to fall back to our own priors—that is, to choose whichever beliefs we find most compelling. And physicalism is frequently taken to be the most natural.1,2 This proposal, though widely accepted, suffers from a fatal (if hard to detect) circularity: for although evidence and reasoning are indeed insufficient to discern the nature of reality, to thereby conclude that it cannot be discerned assumes that evidence and reasoning are the only tools available to you. In other words, it presupposes a metaphysics like physicalism to arrive at a conclusion of physicalism.

If you are, indeed, an individual being at the mercy of a fundamentally external reality, then the tools at your disposal do prevent you from confirming your condition with any certainty whatsoever. Put more plainly: even if physicalism were true, any belief in it would still depend entirely on faith. But not all metaphysics suffer from this problem.

Consider the hypothesis that what you are is the very ground of reality, whose very nature is consciousness—taking the form of a peculiar dream called ‘my adventures in physical reality.’ In that case, you would not have to rely on external evidence—there being nothing external to you in the first place. Nothing could ultimately prevent you from awakening to yourself as the very source and substance of the whole show,3 in a very direct and non-inferential way.

It may be hard—indeed, impossible4—to imagine what such an ‘awakening’ could be like, but this is a minor obstacle in comparison to the in-principle impossibility that inescapably plagues physicalism. For this reason alone, idealism deserves more consideration: if the goal is to discover the truth, then it only makes sense to look in places where the truth can actually be confirmed. Of course, the hypothesis given above (a form of idealism) may not be the only confirmable metaphysics. So why should you pursue it over other possibilities?

One answer is that numerous people have told us that they have ‘woken up,’ but in the spirit of skepticism we ought not simply believe them. The remainder of this piece will provide an experiential exercise meant to help the reader gain some intuition for the idealist position. It may serve as a baby step in the direction of waking up. Please read it slowly and perform the exercises with as much sincerity and naïveté as you can muster.

Look around. While you cannot be sure what is actually happening, notice that something certainly seems to be happening. Take your time and confirm this. It is critical that you are left with no doubt about it. If you do doubt it, simply notice how doubt seems to be happening.

Now look carefully at that-which-seems-to-be-happening: this wondrous field of experience. If we were forced to answer what it is ‘made of,’ we would be hard-pressed to give a meaningful answer. Perhaps the closest we could come is to say that it’s made of the sheer fact of experience itself. Try and get a taste of this in all five sense fields as well as your mental field (of thoughts, emotions, etc.). Notice how this ‘sheer fact’ is luminescing itself to paint your experiential reality.

Now ask yourself: what’s causing it? Your mind desperately wants to answer in terms of physical reality, so now remind yourself of the peculiar (but rigorous) sense in which you have no reason to believe that such a thing even exists. Your mind will rebel, but keep at it.

It may be helpful to reflect on how this practice is simply the most radically honest thing you could possibly do. You are giving your complete attention to what is unmistakably here, while withdrawing it from what you only imagine to be there. If you want to discover the truth, after all, it is imperative that you avoid all forms of self-deception—no matter how tempting they may be.5

You are engulfed in something unspeakably delightful, practically begging you for an explanation or cause. At the same time, there is a precise sense in which you have no reason to believe that causality (as you know it) even applies—or even that you’ve ever experienced anything before this very moment.

If you really nail both halves precisely—the delight and the mystery—there will come a moment when you are suddenly struck dumb by astonishment. Reality will blaze forth as impossibly marvelous, and you will wonder how you ever missed it. Not the inert ‘reality’ that you’d been until then imagining, but the radically alive reality that is inescapably here. Your very definition of the word ‘real’ will be forever changed as a result.

It is as though you have discovered the solution to this old Tibetan riddle:

So close you can’t see it
So deep you can’t fathom it
So simple you can’t believe it
So good you can’t accept it

To which we might humbly add: so obvious you can’t communicate it—even to yourself.

Of course, no experience, no matter how profound, can prove to you the primacy of mind. But if you remain carefully with this discipline of radical honesty, there may come a day when reality unmistakably awakens to itself.


  1. Wittgenstein once asked why people used to think the Sun went ’round the Earth. His friend answered that it’s because it looks that way. Wittgenstein responds: well what would it have looked like if it had looked as if the earth turned on its axis? Similarly, why is physicalism considered the ‘most natural’ choice? It is because things look that way. Well, what would it look like if idealism were true?

  2. Although a physicist by profession, avowed physicalist Prof. Sean Carroll writes about this problem (and its solution) eloquently in The Big Picture:

    There is no way to distinguish between the scenarios by collecting new data. What we’re left with is our choice of prior credences. … [I]t’s okay to set our prior credence in radically skeptical scenarios at very low values, and attach higher prior credence to the straightforwardly realistic possibilities.

    But what could “straightforwardly realistic” possibly mean here? Having just proven that there’s no way to determine what is real, the word “realistic” cannot refer to anything other than a feeling. Despite this, Prof. Carroll invites others to adopt it as their religion:

    In particular, there is no supernatural world—no gods, no spirits, no transcendent meanings. […] Facebook will allow you to declare [this] as your religion.

  3. Note that we are not advocating solipsism, where your personal self is the entirety of reality. You are the source and substance—but so is everybody else.

  4. Anything you can imagine falls into the category of experience, and experiences are intrinsically fallible. This is what makes it so famously hard to not only communicate, but to even communicate the importance of.

  5. Compare this to approaches that begin by asking you to take materialism on faith, and then (unsurprisingly) end up with absurdities like ‘nothing seems to be happening.’ If you get lost enough in the maze of your own mind, you may end up believing such stories—and tragically miss out on the majesty of life.

Launching the Essentia Readings podcast, with Nadia Hassan

Launching the Essentia Readings podcast, with Nadia Hassan

Listening | Mythology | 2021-08-15

Artist Portrait Nadia Hassan

We are delighted to launch today the Essentia Readings podcast. In it, British-Lebanese artist Nadia Hassan reads a selection of the material published by Essentia Foundation, adding her own commentary and impressions. With this initiative, we hope to reach you with quality, enriching content not only during your reading time, but in other moments of your life as well.

Hello and welcome to the Essentia Readings podcast. My name is Nadia and I’ll be bringing you content from a wide range of contributors: scholars, journalists, philosophers, scientists and academics. All to do with that ineffable thing we call consciousness. What is the underlying nature of reality? How do we explain our experience of the world and others? And what are the real implications of viewing existence from an idealist perspective, rather than the prevalent metaphysical model of materialism? These questions and more will be tackled in the episodes to come, and so whether you’re savvy or simply curious, I invite you to join us on this journey of discovery. The article I’ll be presenting today is actually the first one I read back when the Essentia Foundation website was launched. As soon as I saw the tag “Mythology,” I couldn’t click fast enough. As a longtime lover of mythology and fantasy fiction, I knew that was where I should begin, and so it seems only appropriate that we begin here too. Fellow geeks, this one’s for you.

This podcast is available on all major directories, including BuzzSprout, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Spotify:

Depression, anxiety and the grip of metaphysics

Depression, anxiety and the grip of metaphysics

Reading | Editorial

The editors | 2021-08-09

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Metaphysical beliefs modulate our experience of all aspects of life. As such, explicitly assessing the metaphysics we internalize can be the difference between depression and contentment, anxiety and vibrant aliveness. In this brief editorial, we highlight the crucial importance of metaphysics to every facet of our lives.

Recently, one of us was talking to an acquaintance who has been battling stage-four colon cancer for almost five years. The person was struggling with the prospect of the end of life, mentally reliving and reviewing past actions, relationships, mistakes and unachieved dreams. At one point, he confessed to himself out loud: “I’m solely responsible for my loneliness. Socially awkward since childhood, graduating with honors transformed me into an insufferably arrogant over-achiever. I destroyed my engagement and career. Ultimately, cancer erased my hubris too late to mend bridges with family and friends.” That cancer had given him both the push and the time to mend himself—as evidenced by his very words—didn’t occur to him. And if it had occurred, he would still have dismissed it as irrelevant, for our private insights and inner maturity die with us; only what is ‘out there,’ outside our inner lives, counts. Or so we think.

At another point in the conversation, our acquaintance was reminiscing about what he did or failed to accomplish in the course of his life. He managed to find one thing he was proud of; a relatively minor technical achievement that constituted the thin thread of self-validation he was hanging on to. But, soon enough, it gave way: “I don’t feel worthy of the outrageous financial and expert resources expended in extending my life.” For him—as for the vast majority of us—only external accomplishments count as a measure of one’s life’s worth. Nothing that happens inside—insights, understandings, realizations—holds any meaning, for the mental is ephemeral and evanescent; only the material is concrete and substantial. Or so we think.

This person’s way of relating to himself, others and the world—the inner narrative setting the tone for his apprehension of meaning, worth and significance—is a direct implication of the physicalist metaphysics, according to which mind is an ephemeral and inconsequential side-effect of physical entities. Only the latter have true, standalone existence and endure—in different configurations—across time and space. In contrast, inner, mental events, for being destined to eventually vanish into oblivion, are ultimately pointless.

This is very important to realize, if one wants to avoid the fate of our acquaintance: belief in the metaphysics of physicalism is not merely conceptual; it’s not an abstract, academic thing; it is instead deeply internalized and, as such, orchestrates our emotional inner lives. Under most circumstances—not only terminal illness, but also many other aspects of life, such as career and relationship events—it determines whether we are content or dissatisfied, happy or depressed, comfortable or anxious, peaceful or restless, feel supported or lonely, and so on. Our emotional inner lives—our very happiness, contentment and sense of safety—are a direct function of our internalized metaphysical beliefs.

Clearly, thus, metaphysics is a matter of utmost importance. It is very personal, very close to us, very intimate, even if we think we are not ‘into it’ or ‘couldn’t care less.’ If asked, our cancer survivor acquaintance would deny having any affinity with metaphysical questions. Yet, his suffering is modulated by his unexamined metaphysical beliefs. Metaphysical questions are, arguably, the most important questions in life, for they determine whether any given life event will be experienced as positive or negative, constructive or destructive, meaningful or insignificant. We don’t experience objective events; we experience only our internalized apprehension of these events, as determined by the metaphysics we embody. Anyone who believes that what counts are the events themselves, not our embodied interpretation of them, has failed to cognize something vitally important about human nature.

As the material published by Essentia Foundation seeks to make clear, physicalism is not only just a hypothesis, but also a very problematic one at that, as far as coherence, explanatory power and empirical adequacy are concerned. The widespread belief that physicalism must be true—for most scientists and scholars seem to tacitly adopt it at an operational level—is not only unjustified by the facts but also dangerous, since it lies at the root of most existential suffering. It has made us blind to the numinous meaning, significance and immortality of our inner lives, to the universal service we render by achieving inner insight, and to the eternal light of inner growth. If this were understood by our cancer survivor acquaintance, his journey would be eased. To be sure, he would still suffer, but his suffering would be imbued with the grace of eternal meaning, for the mental is what truly has standalone existence. Objective events and external achievements are but means to an end, ephemeral representations without reality of their own.

This is why Essentia Foundation exists: not to engage in a merely abstract, conceptual game, but to change lives in all ways that truly count. Understanding and internalizing metaphysical idealism is literally life-changing: it opens a window to light and fresh air in the dark, moldy and claustrophobic room of physicalism. And so, we invite you to join us in this expansive journey towards true meaning; a journey through vast inner landscapes.

Keeping a close ‘I’ on ‘reality’ in social science

Keeping a close ‘I’ on ‘reality’ in social science

Reading | Social Sciences

Donna Thomas, PhD | 2021-08-01

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In seeking to ameliorate social injustices by debunking the egoic self as measure of all things, the social sciences risk inadvertently abolishing the very notion of a subject of experience, argues Dr. Donna Thomas. The way forward, according to her, is to embrace metaphysics and understand the self not as a separate social agent, but as the ontic ground of all reality, common to all of us.

In La mort de l’auteur,[i] Roland Barthes proclaims the author dead, her identity dissolved in a soup of ten thousand interpretations, through the birth of the reader.[ii] What did he mean by the ‘death of the author’? Barthes (and other post-structuralists) challenged romantic notions of the artist as a producer of textual truths, a supreme creator who possessed and distributed fixed meanings. In other words, the meanings of what is written or said is never dependent on authorial intention but on active reception instead.

La mort de l’auteur (The death of the author) has re-emerged, in some ways, as the death of the ‘self,’ through a new wave of post-human thinking. Just as the atrocities of the second world war catalyzed post-structuralist challenges, our recent social crises provoke a re-examination of—not the author—but our very self(ves) and the ‘matter of matter.’[iii] The historical privileging of authors and textuality is usurped to displace mind, language and a centered-subject[iv]—that classical idea of the human as a ‘basic unit, a knowing subject that is understood as universal and the measure of all things.’[v] Deconstructing this ‘Vitruvian Man’ has been essential for challenging an image of man that has historically subjugated, oppressed and alienated groups and whole societies. But it comes with a cost. The drive towards post-human thinking obliterates the ‘self,’ troubles agency and flattens ontology with a Deluzean hammer. For do we not experience an ‘experiencer’—a sense of I-ness that is an essential aspect of experience?[vi]

Social reality is a shared consensus, held together through the dialectical relations between signs, discourses, practices and systems. The task for the linguist or critical theorist is to enter the ‘kitchen of meaning’[vii] chopping the masking of social ills and injustices. The kitchen must be entered critically, so as to identify the ‘ideological abuse in the decorative display of what-goes-without-saying’[viii]—using tools that can deconstruct enduring discourses as ‘regimes of truth,’[ix] authored by corporates, institutions and governments. We consider how relations between texts, talk and signs figure in perpetuating injustice and inequality, which are detrimental to the wellbeing of many people.[x]

However, despite good intentions, ‘the trap of language’[xi] often catches social science scholars through the act of privileging language above other modes of communication (i.e. sound, color, image) and by viewing self and the world as a discursive phenomenon. For social scholars, who do the messy business of research with humans, philosophical questions are often overlooked. We forget the most important facet of the social transformation agenda: to examine more deeply unquestioned assumptions about who we are and the nature of the reality that we unpick. We overlook deeper questions that ask who the authors of stories are and the origins of their meanings. We analyze discourse as an act of knowledge production, interpreted and molded into worldly configurations.[xii] But we don’t stop to examine the ontological influences that direct our research.

There has long been a dichotomy in social science between social reality and the natural world, found in the post-modern, critical realist and relativist underpinnings of social science scholarship. The consensus views language and self as socially constituted.[xiii] In this way, language partly constitutes social reality (along with objects, institutions, belief systems etc.). The emphasis on language, knowledge and meaning means ontology may not be a primary motivation for social scholars, who aim to uncover hidden relations ‘in the kitchen’ between, for example, identity and power.

Habermas (1996) noted the indifference towards relations between social life and ‘natural laws’ as the price we pay when ‘natural laws continue to be felt within the lifeworld.’[xiv] The natural laws that Habermas appeals to (and everyday people experience) may be better understood as underlying principles, perhaps inherent to how we experience self, others and the world. This requires an ontological move from the material to the mind. Kastrup (2017, 2018, 2019) posits the social and natural world as mental and continuous with our minds. If there is “no intrinsic separation between our minds and the objects of perception, naturally these objects should comport themselves in a way consistent with mental archetypes.”[xv] Now, this ontological leap is not so wide for us to consider in social science. Where critical realists[xvi] move to a second ontological category to claim an external material world outside our individual experiences of it, analytical idealism[xvii] sees only one ontic possibility. The external world is just seemingly separate from our perceptions of it. Made up of the transpersonal mental contents of a ‘mind-at-large,’ the external world is in fact a continuation of our self and experiences. The crucial questions are: Which ontological move can better explain human experience of self, others and the world? Which ontological primitive can offer affordances for a smoother transition between dialectics, relationalities, intersections and subjectivity?

We may not need to get rid of the ‘self’ or the mind to challenge the idea of the Vitruvian Man. Instead, turning to a more parsimonious ontology, such as analytical idealism, could support better understandings about self, subjectivity, agency and how social realities figure in relation to the natural world and the ground of reality. Viewing ontology as an extension to what already is our direct experiences offers valuable potentials for critical social studies. The task then is to recognize the importance of critical theories for social emancipation and transformation, without losing our very sense of self(ves) in the explosion of post-modern-post-humanisms-new-materialisms. It’s a quest to find better explanations about the nature of self and how discourse and relations between ‘things’ figure into it. We need, now more than ever, to keep a close ‘I’ on the ‘ideological abuse’ that is hidden within the walls of the kitchen.


[i] Barthes, 1968.

[ii] See Spivak, 1993.

[iii] See Diaz Diaz & Semenec, 2020.

[iv] See Delueze & Guittari, 1987.

[v] See Protagoras, cited in Braidotti, 2015.

[vi] See Zahavi, 2014.

[vii] See Barthes, 2015, 158.

[viii] Barthes, cited in Badmington, 2020.

[ix] see Foucault, 1980.

[x] see Choiliraki & Fairclough, 2010

[xi] See Barthes, 2005.

[xii] See Barad, 2007.

[xiii] see Fairclough, 2003; Harvey, 1996.

[xiv] See Habermas, 1996.

[xv] See Kastrup, 2017, 55.

[xvi] See Bhaskar, 1998; Fairclough, 2003.

[xvii] See Kastrup, 2018, 2019.



Badmington, N. (2020). An Undefined Something Else: Barthes, Culture, Neutral Life. Theory, Culture & Society, 37(4):65-76.

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Meaning. London: Duke University Press.

Barthes, R. (2005). The Neutral: Lecture Course at the College de France (1977-1978). Trans. Rosalind, K. & Hollier, D. Columbia University Press: New York.

Barthes, R. (1951). Michelet, l’histoire et la Mort. Esprit (1940-), 178(4), 497-511.

Bhaskar, R. (1989). The Possibility of Naturalism. A philosophical critique of the contemporary human sciences. Routledge: London.

Braidotti R (2015) Posthuman Affirmative Politics. In (eds) Wilmer S E. Resisting Biopolitics. Routledge: New York.

Chouliaraki, L. & Fairclough, N. (2010). Critical Discourse Analysis in Organisational Studies: Towards an intergrationist methodology. Journal of Management Studies,

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum Press.

Diaz Diaz, K. & Semenec, P. (2020). Posthumanist and New Materialist Methodologies: Research after the child. Springer: Singapore.

Fairclough, N. (2003). Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research. Routledge: London.

Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings 1972–1977 (C. Gordon, L. Marshall, J. Mepham, & K. Soper, Trans.). London: Harvester: Wheatsheaf.

Habermas, J. (1996). The Unity of reason in the Diversity of Its Voices: What is Enlightenment? In. (eds) Schmidt, J. (1996), University of California Press: Berkeley.

Harvey, D. (1998). The body as an accumulation strategy. Environment and Planning, 16, 401–421.

Kastrup, B. (2017). An Ontological Solution to the Mind-Body Problem. Philosophies, 2(2), 1–18.

Kastrup, B. (2018). The Universe in Consciousness. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 25 (5), 125-155.

Kastrup, B. (2019). The Idea of the World: A multidisciplinary argument for the mental nature of reality. John Hunt Publishing: United Kingdom.

Spivak, G. (1993). Reading the Satanic Verses: In: Outside in the Teaching Machine. London: Routledge, 217-242.

Zahavi, D. (2014). Self and Other: Exploring subjectivity, empathy and shame. Oxford Uni Press, Oxford.

There is no self: the periodic table of experience

There is no self: the periodic table of experience

Reading | Theology

Asher Walden, PhD | 2021-07-25

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Theologian Dr. Asher Walden argues that the self can be accounted for purely as a momentary aggregate of mental factors, without any need to appeal to some additional thing that stands outside the mind-stream. Although we normally think of experience as some kind of relation between two independent real things—a subject and an object—he argues that, in truth, there is just experience; experience is the real thing.

When introducing a discussion on the nature of consciousness, philosophers typically begin with this sort of comment: “As I sit at my desk, I am aware of the sound of voices chatting cheerfully across the room. It is like the babbling of the ocean on a peaceful summer day. Also, I become aware that I am aware of that sound. This is a common enough event—it is usually called self-consciousness, or reflexive awareness, or something similar.”

This all seems innocuous enough. Not the kind of point which, by itself, would seem to start an argument. I suppose they are (unconsciously?) following the precedent set by Descartes in his Meditations. And yet it is viciously misleading. Despite the excellent and important work that has been done in developing and exploring the mind-only doctrine, we still carry along some old assumptions about what consciousness is and how it works which could not possibly be true. One of these is the assumption that the human person, or even the human brain, is the basic unit or locus of consciousness. This gives rise to a number of problems from the standpoint of technical academic philosophy. But it is also the foundation of what I think gives people such a hard time even considering idealism* as a real possibility. My guess is, when people reject idealism out of hand, it has to do with the feeling that consciousness is essentially something individual humans have or do. This is almost a grammatical or linguistic point: what we should be saying is that consciousness is something we participate in or share.

If you want a clearer and more typical example of what consciousness is, pick one of these: sharing a joke with friends; playing music together; locking gazes however briefly with an attractive stranger; playing chess or team sports; even watching a movie or play in a theatre, surrounded by strangers. If you like evolutionary modes of thinking, treat consciousness (especially higher-order consciousness) as a way of coordinating purposes or intentions across organisms. Is there such a thing as truly private, isolated awareness? Possibly, in defective or pathological cases. But even as I write this, sitting alone at my desk (overhearing those cheerful human voices), I am in implicit conversation with a community of scholars who share with me a set of ideas, interpretations, and values. You and I share a thought-sphere which is not localized in space or time. Hello, my friends. Nice to be here with you.

In order to get behind this illusion of isolated consciousness, I would like to discuss an alternate form of analysis based on the Buddhist text tradition called Abhidharma. Now, anyone interested in the philosophy of idealism should be at least familiar with the availability of resources in Buddhist philosophy. Buddhists were, so to speak, first on the scene with respect to the relevant insights. And they have developed over the course of millennia some powerful tools and strategies around the analysis of mind, language, truth, and metaphysics. In the last generation, there has been a powerful resurgence of interest in these approaches among Western-trained analytic philosophers. Here, I want to focus on just one: the idea that the whole world can be described in terms of individual ‘units’ of consciousness, called dharmas.

What are the dharmas? They are sort of the phenomenological equivalent of the periodic table of elements. The idea is that any manifestation of consciousness can be understood as some combination of discrete, indivisible mental factors. And since the whole world is understood to be consciousness only, the discrete modes of consciousness are also—modes of being. Like the atomic elements of physics, these mental factors can be organized into functional groups for heuristic and pedagogical purposes. Over the centuries, a number of lists of the Dharmas have been compiled, usually comprising around 50 to 100 mental factors. Generally, the strategy is to come up with the smallest list possible that accounts for all aspects of consciousness, including the various forms of higher-order, reflective consciousness and meta-cognition. Thus, the basic units of consciousness are these mental factors, not persons. From the Buddhist standpoint, the subjective self is not an ultimate or really existing ‘thing.’ It is simply, if you like, a localized cluster of momentary factors. The factors are enough to explain why we experience ourselves as selves, discrete and enduring in time, even though being a self is more akin to a wave or eddy in the ocean of consciousness.

Likewise, what we call consciousness is not just one thing, or place, or container, within which various kinds of content occur. Instead, we should understand it as a tightly interwoven bundle of different conscious elements. What are those elements? They include sense-factors, more or less wholesome desires, what we call moral or personality factors, and so on. The list is quite heterogenous and not at all easy to organize in a clear logical schematic. Many of the factors appear ‘simple’ or atomic (colors and other elements of vision; hot and cold; pain, itch and tickle, etc.). Others may seem higher order, even constructed, such as the way the mind synthesizes discrete objects, and moral perceptions such as shame. Thus, mental factors are modular in some cases and to some extent, but in other cases hierarchical. A given factor may simultaneously act independently and also as a subcomponent for one or more other factors. The traditional methodology for developing the list, the sub-categories, and the typical interactions between elements, involved both contemplative introspection and interpretation of the Buddhist scriptures. Nowadays, we can add another set of powerful tools from the neurosciences.

To summarize briefly, the list we would generate today would look something like this:

  1. The four external senses (sight, sound, smell, taste).
  2. The four internal/projective senses (touch, proprioception, balance, and visceral interoception).
  3. The various perceptual ‘parts’ of those senses, if they have parts. For instance, taste has five parts (sweet, sour, etc.), balance has three parts (up/down, forward/back, left/right), smell has no parts. Interoception doesn’t quite have parts—it may be better to think of it as its own category, comprising hunger, thirst, sexual desire, and so on.
  4. A number of specialized modules that build upon the foregoing factors. They include the perception of language, number, human faces, intention, time, and perhaps a few others.
  5. The factors of judgment (personality dimensions, moral intuitions).
  6. Three overarching forms of synthesis: the synthesis of self, which neuroscientists describe as the ‘body schema’; the synthesis of world, conjoining the four external senses in the context of number, time, and the other specialized modules; and the synthesis of judgment, which combines our various desires and judgment factors to produce our sense of freely determined will.
  7. The traditional lists of Abhidharma also include one ‘unconditioned’ element: nirvana. I see no reason not to include it here, though we may want to quibble about the proper name for it. It could be called nothingness or emptiness in English, but I actually prefer to call it Kenosis,** both as a way to invite conversation with the Christian mystical traditions, and also because Kenosis has the sense of an activity or process, rather than a state: ‘Emptying’ (Perhaps in German, it would be called ‘Dasein’).

This list is not final: it is an ongoing and still-shifting product of empirical research and interpretation. Generally speaking, the purpose of this kind of list is to understand the structure of phenomenal experience. In the Buddhist framework, suffering is caused by an ignorance of the true nature of the self and the world, and attachment to a certain misconstrual of the same. Abhidharma is the attempt to explain both the true nature of experience, and the reasons why we come to the incorrect conclusions that we typically do. We believe that we are selves, and that our experience is something that happens in and for that self. The Buddhist (and Idealist) reply is that experience is all there is.

No one would be surprised if, looking out the same window, he consistently saw the same things, day in and day out. Or if, working in the same office, she had the same experience of job-satisfaction. Just so, the sum of subjective experience is very consistent over time simply because the modes of consciousness are taking place in the same location, namely our body. Indeed, many of the modes of consciousness we enjoy not only are structured from the perspective of the body (vision, orientation in space) but are really about bodily states (hunger, pain, proprioception). Of course, perception of self takes place within the synthesis of physiological modes (the body schema) and also, perhaps more importantly, social modes of consciousness. Much of what we call self-consciousness is really the awareness of our rank or status in relation to the other people we regularly encounter, resulting in a pattern of awareness commonly referred to as ‘self-esteem.’ This is one of the nine modes of judgment mentioned above. There is also the unconditioned element of nirvana, which is a kind of background hum which, here as elsewhere, we misconstrue as something private and internal. This mental factor is, I suspect, the one that gives rise to the irreducible suchness of the first-person perspective, which many people think cognitive science will simply never be able to ‘explain.’ The point is that the self can be exhaustively accounted for as a momentary aggregate of mental factors, without any need to appeal to some additional thing that stands outside the mind-stream.

Similarly, we believe that our perceptual experience is about independently existing external objects. But the Buddhists have a host of skeptical arguments against this notion (I won’t try to summarize those arguments here). Instead, the physical objects we perceive have no depth nature, essence or glue to play the role of cause or source or substrate of those cognizable qualities that are the content of our awareness of them. Things are just functional unities of qualities: both the qualities we are able to perceive directly, and any other qualities which we do not. This does not mean, or require, that at any given time some sentient being is or must be in the act of actually perceiving them. It just means that everything there is to know or say about a thing is the sort of thing that can be, as we normally say, within consciousness.

The overall upshot of the deconstruction of the independent self and the complementary deconstruction of enduring objects is a ‘flipped’ understanding of experience. We normally think of experience as some kind of relation between two independent real things: a subject and an object. But the truth is that there is just experience—experience is the real thing. It just happens to be the case that experience has this bipolar structure for us, constrained and extended between the synthesis of self and the synthesis of world, with the synthesis of judgment determining our actions and reactions from the one toward the other. These things are mental factors, factors of consciousness. In other words, they are qualities or dimensions of consciousness, misconstrued as the foundation of consciousness itself. Consciousness has no foundation. It is the foundation.

Finally, the Abhidharmic analysis of consciousness in terms of dharmas or mental factors paves the way for an understanding of consciousness as something that is intrinsically shared, public. The perception of a color or a note is not something internal and private at all. It is a reality that any of us who are looking at the same thing or listening to the same music can share in. Just as we normally think of physical bodies standing near to one another, in the same room, we should think of ourselves as occupying or participating in the same consciousness, in phenomenal proximity to one another. A person experiences similar (though not identical) things over time: what this really means is that, at two points in time, the content of experience is represented by two largely overlapping sets of dharmas. Just so, two people, at the same time, in the same place, are constituted by two overlapping sets of dharmas. The closer they are in space and in mutual understanding, the greater the overlap in dharmas will be. This point must be emphasized as much as possible: it is not that they have different experiences of the same things; rather, it is the same experience happening along two different vectors, as if a tree had two branches that diverged and then grew back together, or like a steam that divides around an island and then rejoins itself.

Philosophy and religion share, at their core, the problem of living together. How do we do it? What are the costs? What, impossibly, would the alternative be? Religion gives us the forms; the rituals and institutions and creeds, by which humans harmonize their experience, values and goals. Philosophy is reflection on the preconditions for the possibility that such forms are successful. Living together—this is all that matters.

What they call solipsism represents a real and legitimate fear, for creatures such as ourselves. Much of the time, communication and cooperation are so smooth and seamless that we take it for granted that we share a common ground, common experience. But when things break down, in families and in politics, the walls go up, and the community splinters. Then we wonder: how could those others possibly know how we feel? How could they possibly be so misguided? Do they even live in the same world as us? And sometimes, the problem is not with them, but with me: why is it so hard to reach out? Why don’t I feel included? Am I really as alone as I seem to be? When philosophers ask about how we gain knowledge of the world, they are implicitly asking about something we do together. They are asking how we all end up with the same knowledge, about the same world. How is such knowledge possible? How do I know that what I experience is not a kind of hallucination?

The philosophy of idealism addresses these questions by defending, in the most consistent and tenacious way, the reality of common experience. Rather than individual beings, with more or less similar experiences, the world is constituted by common experience, structured in the shape of more or less overlapping and interdependent selves.


* Editor’s note: Idealism is the notion that all nature is mental in essence.

** Editor’s note: kenosis means an emptying out of one’s own individual self and will.


Selected References:

Baron-Cohen, Simon. Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. The MIT Press, 1995.

Bodhi, Bhikkhu, ed., Mahathera Narada, trans. & ed. A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma: the Abhidammatha sangaha of Acariya Anuruddha. Buddhist Publication Society, 1993.

Chan, Wing-Tsit, ed. and trans. A Sourcebook in Chinese Philosophy. Princeton University Press, 1969.

Chadha, Monima. No-Self and the phenomenology of agency. Phenom Cogn Sci 16187–205 (2017).

Cook, Francis K., trans. Three texts on Consciousness Only. BDK America, 2006.

Garfield, Jay. Empty Words: Buddhist philosophy and cross-cultural interpretation. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. Vintage Books, 2012.

Nettle, Daniel. Personality: What makes you the way you are. Oxford University Press, 2007.

Nyanaponika Thera. Bhikkhu Bodhi, ed. Abhidhamma Studies: Buddhist Explorations of Consciousness and Time. Wisdom Publications, 2010.

Pinker, Steven. How the Mind Works. W.W. Norton & Co., 1999.

Siderits, Mark, Evan Thompson, and Dan Zahavi, eds. Self, no self?: Perspectives from analytical, phenomenological, and Indian traditions. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. G.E.M. Anscombe, trans. Wiley-Blackwell, 1973.

Wood, Thomas E. Mind Only: A philosophical and doctrinal analysis of the Vijnanavada. University of Hawaii Press, 1991.

This ‘zero-worlds’ theory might just be crazy enough to be true

This ‘zero-worlds’ theory might just be crazy enough to be true

Reading | Physics

Hans Busstra | 2021-07-18

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Physicist Markus Müller developed a mathematical probability theory that can solve some fundamental puzzles of physics better than current theories. Journalist Hans Busstra interviewed Müller on his so-called ‘zero-worlds’ theory, which was not meant as a proof of an idealistic worldview, but does ‘give you idealism for free.’

His own quantum theory made Werner Heisenberg ponder deeply on the nature of reality: “I think modern physics has definitely decided in favor of Plato. Physical objects are forms, ideas which can be expressed unambiguously only in mathematical language.”

Just like all of us mortals, physicists are somehow stuck in Plato’s cave, never being able to see the actual flames outside the cave that cast shadows on the walls inside. At the end of the day physics cannot answer metaphysical questions for us about what matter is, or if it exists independent of our observation. When I first realized this, I found it deeply unsettling, but thought to myself: at least physics can give us the laws of nature that govern the shadows in the cave, the laws governing what we call matter.

But it only took me a surface reading of modern physics to realize that things are a bit more complicated still. For instance, there is a pretty good chance that a modern physicist sitting beside you in Plato’s cave could say something like: ‘let go of the idea of one outside of the cave, there is an infinitely large amount of different ‘outsides’ that exist simultaneously, you only get to see one of them.’ Or, put differently: ‘let go of the idea that there are deterministic laws governing the flames and shadows, there are only probabilities.’ But recently I sat down with a physicist that even takes things a step further, and says: ‘what if there is no outside of the cave at all?’

Markus Müller PhD, who is Group Leader at the Institute for Quantum Optics and Quantum Information in Vienna, Austria and visiting fellow at the prestigious Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada, came up with a probability theory that can make accurate mathematical predictions about the world we see without the notion that an outside world actually exists. With a smile on his face Müller calls it a “zero-worlds” theory.

Müller’s ideas, based on his work in quantum information theory, are hard to grasp because they are about as counter intuitive as it gets. But to solve some of the fundamental questions of modern physics, they might be a hint to the right direction. To quote Niels Bohr, maybe Müller’s ideas are “crazy enough to be true.”


What is in essence the difference between information theory and quantum information theory?

The main difference is, I would say, that in standard information theory you can always reduce everything to a lack of knowledge. For any given question, you can always assume that the answer is already out there in the world. You just don’t know it. This turns out to be wrong in quantum theory: it just doesn’t work to assume that the answers to all questions are already out there before you ask, unless we give up other important principles of physics like locality. There’s a kind of missing information that’s not due to missing knowledge, but due to the fact that the world hasn’t decided yet. I hesitate putting it so simplified, and would rather go into the mathematics to explain this rigorously, but let me give a practical example of quantum information theory. If information isn’t ‘out’ yet, then you can use it to do cryptography and have a secret key that nobody can spy on, because you can’t spy on a key that’s not yet there. You can only spy on information that’s already out there in the world. Put differently: if the world hasn’t ‘decided’ yet whether an electron spins left or right, and then you measure it and find an answer, then nobody else can know the answer unless you tell them. This is a colorful way to explain the mathematics of parts of quantum cryptography or the quantum generation of random numbers—though I know how counterintuitive this sounds to someone unfamiliar with quantum information theory.


It is absolutely counter-intuitive and confuses everything about what we normally understand when we talk about ‘information.’ Is it correct that in quantum theory we can only speak of probabilities, instead of ‘solid’ information about the world?

On a microscopic level quantum theory only gives you probabilities for an outcome, it doesn’t tell you which outcome you will see. So if you send a photon to a half-silvered mirror, it can either be reflected or pass through, but you don’t know which of the two you will get. But if you send two million photons in a row, you can be pretty sure that you will roughly get one million passes and one million reflections. In a similar way things average out in our macroscopic world: for large objects and many particles, most predictions become essentially deterministic.


What fascinates me, is that in this probabilistic world everything is theoretically possible, for instance many copies of myself could be out there in the universe. What bothers you is not so much the weirdness of these ideas, but the fact that current physics cannot give us accurate probabilities about the weirdness, right?

Well, according to some models the universe is so extremely large that we should expect very unlikely things to happen, and that they should happen a large number of times. Now the idea of copies of yourself, that you’re referring to, is called the Boltzmann brain problem. Imagine a brain popping up somewhere in the universe with exactly all the memories that you’re holding of your life on earth. According to some cosmological models, it is much more likely in the universe for such a ‘Boltzmann brain’ to spontaneously emerge, than it is for our human brains to have evolved on earth. But if this is true, doesn’t this mean that we should believe that we are Boltzmann brains—and believe that in the next few moments, we will disappear as quickly as we have popped up? Cosmologists ponder about these questions, because they think it allows them to distinguish “good” from “bad” cosmological models—those with or without Boltzmann brains. But if you try to answer questions like this, you automatically run into fundamental other questions, like how big is the multiverse? Why do the laws of nature have the form that they have? Could they be different somewhere else in the universe? And: where exactly are we in this universe?


OK, so if I understand correctly: if we for instance want to calculate the probability that we’re a Boltzmann brain, we need to know these variables, some of which we cannot in principle know…

Yes, according to some models of our universe, there has been in the beginning after the Big Bang a phase of rapid growth. The universe was expanding very rapidly and it’s become extremely large. We only see a small portion of it until we reach the event horizon, the place from where light cannot reach us to tell us what’s out there. And in different universes different laws of physics could apply. So there are simply too many unknowns.


Now you came up with a rather remarkable ‘work around’ and suggest a bold thought-experiment: what if we let go for a moment of the whole idea that we are located in a physical universe, could that help us to be a bit more precise on the probabilities of, for instance, the idea of Boltzmann brains?

Instead of making all sorts of metaphysical assumptions about what is out there in the universe, I want to begin with something that’s kind of unquestionable, namely that I’m an observer and I see something. Now you could talk about consciousness and subjective experience but for me as a physicist it’s actually more technical. I would just say I have a bunch of locally available data and I want to make a guess what the data will be next. Usually, we assume that the external world determines your next data: you look up and see a bright spot in the sky because there is the Sun out there, and the laws of physics determine what the Sun looks like. So to predict, we model the world, say where we are in that world, and apply the known laws of physics. But the Boltzmann brain problem shows that this doesn’t always work—you could be a brain floating out there that has a memory of the sun, without a real sun out there.

Thus, I’m proposing something different: assume that what’s next is determined directly by the data that you hold and nothing else; no external world, no physical laws in the usual sense. Instead, a single claim: what you see next is determined by a probability law called “algorithmic probability.” It’s something that computer scientists have discovered independently. It gives computers a way to predict what happens next without knowing the laws of physics; it’s a kind of “gold standard” for machine learning. It turns out that this probability law is in principle in agreement with physics: it predicts that what you see looks very much as if there was an external world around you—without having assumed that there is actually such a world in the first place.


It sounds like a radical quantum approach to the macroscopic world, putting the observer or the measurement at the centre. But how exactly does algorithmic probability allow us to infer a complete external world only from ‘data’ that we see directly?

An understandable way of explaining it is to take a look at Conway’s Game of Life. This is a simulated world on your computer built up of lots of squares that can be black or white on a large canvas. These squares, called cellular automata, are governed by a couple of simple rules like: if a white square is surrounded by three other white squares it turns black. Now you start the Game with a simple initial state and then let it run and the most interesting structures evolve. It actually is a great metaphor of evolution to see how complexity emerges from very simple rules. And say this is our universe, this super large canvas with cellular automata giving us data. We are ‘trapped’ in only a very small part of the canvas and we don’t know the rules that govern the patterns we see. So what if we don’t ask what is the explanation for the patterns we see, but simply: what pattern will I see next? The way it’s mathematically formulated is to scan through all possible computations for a particular pattern and figure out what the simplest computation is, and with a high probability that will be the computation to predict what you see next.

A cellular automaton with very simple local rules (only slightly less simple than the Game of Life), seemingly giving rise to a complex world of large, interacting triangular patterns. No triangles or global interactions actually exist in the rules.


Still this sounds just as abstract as it sounds commonsensical: to predict what we see next around us, we look at what we’ve seen before—the basics of induction. What exactly is the value of this approach?

My approach allows us to address questions that are impossible to answer within our usual picture of physics: How should we think of cosmology‘s “Boltzmann brain problem” explained above? Why is there a world with laws of physics in the first place? How should we think about the puzzles of quantum mechanics? If we simulate a human being on a computer, will it “wake up” in the simulation?

Currently, many of these questions are studied by ad-hoc philosophical contemplation, but my approach gives concrete mathematical answers. For example, it allows you to calculate the probability that you will next disappear like a Boltzmann brain. Or, in the simulation example, if tells you the probability that you will next observe the simulated computer world around you as opposed to the ordinary one. In contrast to philosophy, we can check whether this probability law is consistent with empirical science: it’s a single law that is supposed to apply to crazy thought experiments and to ordinary physics experiments alike. This makes it in principle testable, in contrast to ad-hoc philosophical or religious approaches.


How does your theory relate to an idealist worldview?

It is a kind of a similar view: my approach claims that some notion of “mind” is fundamental, not the “world.” But there is an important difference: my notion of “mind” is mathematical and information-theoretic. It is not directly related to consciousness or the quality of experience. This is a big difference to many philosophical versions of idealism.

Traditional versions of idealism have always faced a difficulty: how do you account for the outside world? If there is fundamentally only mind, isn’t it a miracle that things look as if there was an external world that evolves according to stringent laws? Where does it come from? How do you explain that there are things that seem to be external to you? The good news here is that you get this for free in my model, you can prove mathematically that things look for us pretty much as if we were embedded in a physical world. There is a fun way to describe what I’m doing. In quantum theory, a popular view is the “many-worlds interpretation”: everything that can possibly happen does actually happen, in a large number of parallel worlds. I agree that there is not “one world”, but I’m proposing the other possibility: a ‘zero-worlds’ theory.


One thing that I like personally, but that also puzzles me about idealism, and also about your theory, is that there seems to be the suggestion that ‘mind’ or ‘the observer’ has some sort of agency, that it can really influence the world which it observes, that we somehow cause or mentally construct this ‘zero-world’ you’re talking about. What is your reflection here?

This is a very common misunderstanding, so let me make this very clear: my approach does not at all make any such claims. The ‘zero-world’ is not mentally constructed, and it cannot be modified merely by wishful thinking or one’s personal attitude. In my approach, a notion of “mind” is fundamental, in the sense that a probability law acts on it directly, without mediation by any “external world.” But see: not the mind is in control, but the mathematical probability law.

The activity theory of consciousness

The activity theory of consciousness

Reading | Psychology

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Prof. Vladimir Serkin discusses a theory of consciousness whereby the latter is not regarded as merely a product of physiological function. His isn’t an idealist approach and, therefore, we at Essentia Foundation reserve judgment about it. However, the theory is undoubtedly scholarly and reveals the remarkably interesting directions in which Russian academia is pursuing an explanation for mind. They aren’t as held back by physicalist prejudices as similar efforts in the West, and thus deserve our careful attention.

By now, millions of facts have been accumulated related to transpersonal, religious, and psycho-technical experiences, unexpected knowledge of ancient languages by people who did not study them, accurate predictions of the future, ‘out of body’ and mental travel, telepathy, telekinesis, etc. Many of them have been objectively recorded in concordance with strict positivist requirements and supported by the testimonies of reputable scientists, such as V.P. Zinchenko, I.M. Kagan, A.N. Leontiev, B.F. Lomov, A.R. Luria, V.D. Nebylitsyn, B.V. Rauschenbach, M.G. Yaroshevsky and others [30, 11]. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of well-recognized theories of consciousness [1, 2, 4, 6, 16, 5, 27] do not explain the accumulated empirical evidence. For example, take people in the state of clinical death, when all the physiological and related neurocognitive processes are completely absent: while in the ‘out-of-body’ state, they are able to observe what is happening and, after regaining consciousness, not only report the general line of events, but also provide their detailed and specific description [15]. Of course, we can continue to ignore numerous psychic phenomena, unexplained by existing theories, but this will not make them disappear; instead, it may result in psychology losing its scientific credibility.

In the methodology of science, the principle of observer-independent results has long been considered untenable. However, many psychology researchers still try to adhere to this ideal in their scientific models and theories. But when constructing theories of consciousness, filtering out the researcher engaged in the process of cognition leads to complete absurdity. For this is an attempt to build theories or models of consciousness that are independent of the researcher, who is part of the very process of consciousness. And it is precisely such absurd theories that are generally recognized nowadays.

According to mandatory methodological requirements, theories that do not explain facts should be rejected as invalid, and new theories, which account for the entire body of accumulated empirical data, should be proposed instead.

In this article, I propose nine theses for a theory of consciousness that fits within the developmental trends of Russian psychology. The theory also attempts to provide a natural-scientific explanation of the generally accepted phenomenology of consciousness and many transpersonal phenomena. The first thesis proposes a new conceptualization of reality, i.e., it provides a philosophical and ideological framework for an activity-based theory of consciousness. The other eight theses are the content of the theory itself.


Thesis 1. The mental and the physical are different attributes of activity, which is the basic processrelated substance.

Psychologists and philosophers [14, 15, 21] are increasingly converging to the idea formulated by Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza: the mental and the physical (or physiological) are two different attributes of the same substance. This singular substance is cognizable by human beings, yet unknown to modern science [24].

So, what is this substance, and what is its ontological status? It is commonly believed that this substance is still unknown to science. However, I would suggest that the substance that determines the psyche is activity [19]. And only such a process-substance can bridge the gap between the ideal (the psyche) and the material (the physical). The material and the ideal are not primordial, nor the substance of each other in any way, but rather two attributes of activity, which is the basic process-substance of the Universe.

In Russian psychology, it has long been recognized that mental reflection is subordinate to activity. The subject of life activity does not need to possess an objective knowledge of life activity, but rather act in its best interest. Thus, the task of ‘searching for objective knowledge’ is formulated only by evolved consciousness, and not at the early stages of the development of the psyche. Initially, it is not the psyche that determines activity, but rather activity that determines the psyche.


Thesis 2. An individual is the subject not of a single activity, but of a system of performed activities.

Studies of consciousness include in their scope the entire system of activities performed by the subject. A.N. Leontiev defined activity as a unit of analysis of human activity, thereby pointing out that it is not limited to one single instance. The term “hierarchy of motives”, used by Leontiev, unequivocally presupposes the presence in each person of a hierarchical system of carried out activities and corresponding motives [9]. I have introduced the term, ‘individual way of life.’ It is a system of activities that a person carries out as a subject, or as part of such aggregate ‘subjects’ such as a society or a group, during a certain period of life, and prior to the change of the hierarchy of motives [19]. The structure of the way of life is determined by both the image of the world and the plan of real-life interactions, which in turn determines how the perception of the world evolves.

The consciousness of the subject manifests itself as a psychological quality of not just one, but the whole system of the subject’s activities. Thus, for example, at least two motives are necessary for the emergence, experience and possible cognition of an internal conflict. With one activity and a single motive, no internal conflict can arise in principle. In reality, however, internal conflict is caused by a great number of motives. And that accounts for the difficulty of reflexive processing of such a conflict, with all its accompanying uncertainty and tension.

The presence of multiple motives, and subsequently the need to make a choice, enables us to become aware of being a subject in the first place. Also, the very notion of objectivity and objective qualities can only emerge through the separating of what is being cognized from a particular motive, and by comparing it with other motives. Reflexivity and self-consciousness, in turn, can develop only through the multiplicity and alternativity of the subjective.


Thesis 3. Individual consciousness is an attribute of the subject’s system of activities.

Consciousness is a psychological attribute of a system of activities carried out by a person. The development and content of an individual consciousness are determined by the personal history of activities and the areas of those activities [3]. At the same time, the processes of consciousness themselves are defined by the performance of activities. The physical attribute of an activity is the physical body of a person, a group, a society or mankind. A better developed, complex and structured system of activities corresponds to a more developed consciousness. The complexity of the entire system of activities realized by a person—i.e., their way of life—is determined not only by their level of education or technological literacy, but also, and above all, their psychological accomplishments. It is creative, scientific, transpersonal, consultative and other types of activity that would be considered the most complex on this scale.

Accordingly, more complex forms of activity than the human ones correspond to mental structures more complex than the human. In line with this interpretation of the mental, a person, being the physical carrier of consciousness, is a transient evolutionary link and a physical attribute of the development of increasingly complex forms of activity.

The qualitative leap in the evolution of such a mental form as consciousness is linked to the presence of self-awareness and reflection. A more advanced level of activity and its corresponding psyche would probably require another physical carrier, perhaps K.E. Tsiolkovsky’s “radiant man” or possibly other species, the variety of which is not yet known. And if each human being does not undertake an activity towards their own evolution, he or she will not evolve.


Thesis 4. There is no ‘objective reality independent of our consciousness.’ A person ‘creates’ reality through his or her actions.

Regardless of whether we want it or not, our actions always change our reality. And being aware of that allows us to change our lives consciously and responsibly. Often the failure to act is a refusal to make an impact on one’s own existence.

The traditional paradigm of consciousness modelling, which is associated with the epistemological approach, describes the reflective functions of consciousness. This characterization is most vividly presented in the works of C. Castaneda, where a person is expressly described as a perceiving being, whereas versions of ‘reality’ are recognized as descriptions of various forms of perception. The paradigm we propose construes an individual as a creator choosing his or her ‘reality,’ and the primary functions of consciousness as those of transformation and design [20].

The notion of consciousness as a set of cognitive and motivational processes rests on the implicit tenet that there is an ‘objective reality,’ on the one hand, and a cognitive subject separate from that reality, on the other. According to our theory, however, consciousness develops in the process of activity, an active practice that changes and unfolds ‘reality.’ ‘Reality’ for a creator is not permanently fixed and objectively existing, but rather a process, a material attribute of activity, which can be influenced by it. A.N. Leontiev similarly pointed to the transformation of forms of activity and individual actions into the qualities of an object, thus reflecting the objectifying qualities of activity.

The texts by A.N. Leontiev [9] and B.F. Lomov [10] contain reflections on the triple influence of activity on the object, the subject and the activity itself. To elaborate further on these points: activity changes (a) reality, since any object of activity is a systemic part of reality; (b) the physical body, mental functions, consciousness, relations and means of the subject of activity; (c) activity itself and, consequently, the entire system of activities.

Given that an ‘objective reality’ independent of our consciousness and of our actions does not exist, and especially in view of the postulate that the Universe is systemic and interconnected, a new dimension to the problem of the subject’s responsibility in the process of consciousness opens up.


Thesis 5. It is not consciousness that unifies a person’s diverse activities, but his or her system of activities that integrates diverse states of consciousness into the coherent conscious.’

Clinical and other empirical data on the ‘splitting’ (dissociation) of consciousness show that a person, being in one state of consciousness, cannot remember experiences from a different state. It is precisely through an activity-based approach that partial ‘recovery’ of such experiences is possible, since the perception of reality created by activity is imprinted in multiple states of consciousness. This allows us to study and describe consciousness not as a set of isolated states, but as a structure of states consolidated by a system of human activities. Consequently, it is not consciousness that unites human activities into a coherent process, but, on the contrary, the system of activities that integrates different states of consciousness into the self-consciousness cognized by the subject.

It is obvious that reality is changeable through physical action, even though many mystical doctrines and testimonies also mention a change of reality by the mental efforts of consciousness alone. In principle, there are no logical objections to discussing the impact of the psyche (a mental attribute) on reality (a physical attribute) mediated by inner activity (activity). However, to study such interactions it would be necessary to develop a terminology to describe the corresponding energy-informational processes of consciousness, which so far have been studied very little. This would allow us to conceptually explain transpersonal states of consciousness and different notions of reincarnation. Since the system of activities during a lifetime unites different states into a coherent whole, it could also unite the states of consciousness attributed to different incarnations, provided that the system of activities be extended to multiple lifetimes. That is why recollections of reincarnation and various transpersonal experiences require certain practices (activities) handed down through generations.

According to the methodology of the activity-based approach, the concept of consciousness can be further advanced: a researcher would study instead the activity of consciousness; in other words, activity being regulated by consciousness and modulating it back in turn. When setting up an objective, experimental research project, it is not the subject’s or the experimenter’s self-reports that should be investigated and interpreted, but the results of activities (actions) and the subjects’ awareness of them.


Thesis 6. New contents of consciousness arise not from an attribute (i.e., consciousness itself), but from the totality (i.e., activity).

Where does a new thought come from? Not from an old thought. And where does new knowledge arise from? Not from old knowledge. Logical and rational explanations often do not work. Otherwise, we would have generated knowledge after knowledge on the basis of rational explanations alone. The qualitative transition from the old knowledge to something new, which often lacks any rational explanation, cannot be accounted for by consciousness alone. The new is not generated by consciousness itself, which is a particular attribute of the whole, but by the activity of the whole, or, in the case of humans, by activity, sometimes even experimental. Naturally, when the whole (i.e., the system of activities) changes, the corresponding attributes of the whole, ‘reality’ and ‘consciousness,’ change accordingly.

We can cognize new knowledge and insight not in the process of acquiring them, but retrospectively, once they become part of our consciousness. It is precisely because new knowledge appears after the act of activity that it becomes a new property of consciousness, now containing a new insight.


Thesis 7. Joint activity—new qualities of consciousness.

A research project comparing the functioning and productivity across individual consciousnesses and group consciousness, and extrapolating the results into a model of consciousness, is still due. We can observe a division of holistic activity when different people perform separate actions or even labour operations such as, for example, different workers on separate conveyor belts assembling one car. Although terms like ‘group goals,’ ‘group motivation’ and ‘corporate consciousness’ are widely used, they still lack a description and a theoretical justification.

The study of group phenomenology, be it social or cultural, reveals most evidently the reductionist tendency to apply terms used to map individual psychology to group consciousness. It’s a researcher’s complexity problem: the complexity of the subject of research exceeds that of the researcher. The only way to solve it is through active cognitive design: the gradual complication of a research project through the accumulation of knowledge about the subject of research [22].

It has been experimentally proven that the productivity of the joint activities of two people increases not twice, but much more than that [29, 10]. Thus, in a joint action, new systemic qualities that are not inherent in individual activity are manifested. By the same logic, one can indicate the existence of interacting levels of the psyche both of individuals (from protozoa to human consciousness and beyond) and collectivities (flock, population, genus, species, group, society, culture, noosphere, noospheric groups, etc.).

Joint activity gives rise to joint consciousness, which is the ideal attribute of activity, and to joint corporeality and instrumentality—a material attribute. Currently, there are no terms to define the concepts of ‘consciousness of the subject of joint activity’ or ‘corporality’ as the instrument of joint activity. At the same time, such terms as ‘public consciousness,’ ‘collective consciousness’ or ‘group consciousness’ do not necessarily include the aspect of joint activity, and, in general, say nothing about joint corporeality as the instrument.


Thesis 8. Consciousness is not individual, it is transpersonal in a group, culture, nation, etc.

Consciousness as shared cognition is inherently social and mediated by a system of activities. An individual system has a structure and function determined by its supra-system, i.e., the system of activities of a society. The individual system should be included in any activity of a community and reproduce some part of the community’s activity.

Active mediation of consciousness in the process of its ontogenetic development is generally recognized in Russian psychology. When examining consciousness as an attribute or a systemic quality of a system of activities, it is necessary to extend the time axis for the presence of consciousness both before and after the existence of the physical body, at least for as long as such system of activities exists, be it partially or differently structured [17]. Simple logic dictates: if there is an activity, there are also its attributes. In Buddhist psychology, this question is thoroughly worked out, and the activities that continue after leaving the physical body are called “skandhas.”

Another aspect of transpersonality is related to the inclusion of the individual system of human activity into the general flow of activities. The psychological aspect (ideal and opposite to material) of the general activity of humanity and of all other living beings, both studied and not, is the noosphere. Inclusion in the noosphere enables a natural-scientific explanation of transpersonal, spatial and timeless manifestations of human consciousness, which is a consequence of mediated interaction of individual human activity with the general noospheric activity stream.

Understanding transpersonal relationships is particularly difficult for mainstream science. Given certain aspects of modern scientific discourse and positivist rules like verification, falsification, etc., the bulk of modern scientists are people with a strongly developed rational sphere, which is related to restriction, differentiation and generalization. And that, of course, by the law of reciprocal relations, hampers their ability to tap into non-rational cognition, such as connection with the whole, synthesis and intuition.


Thesis 9. Most transpersonal, psychic, shamanistic and other practices are not yet scientifically understood and should be studied precisely as unknown forms of activity.

If we define culture as the space of activities, we can identify general cultural components of consciousness and the ontogenetic structure of a community’s culture. Cultural characteristics of consciousness occur precisely as an attribute of cultural forms of activity.

At times, some actions of a professional may seem miraculous or magical due to the mastery of an activity unfamiliar to us. It is a sort of special psychic ‘organ,’ which we simply do not possess, though we do have others, corresponding to our profession [18]. The diagnostic and ritual actions of a shaman, for instance, may seem even more magical to us, because of the mastery of a culturally foreign activity and its corresponding psychic forms, which are unimaginable to us.

Many forms of altered states of consciousness, which are described in religious and esoteric texts [25], scientific monographs [7] and textbooks [26], are achieved through well-developed exercises and special lifestyles. These states are subject of specially organized activity. However, their structure corresponds completely to all other known types of activity.

Consider the results of A.N. Leontiev’s experiments on the development of nonspecific ‘extrasensory’ sensitivity—namely, sensing light with the skin of one’s hand: “Objectively, all the subjects, at the end of the series of experiments, removed their hand from a key in response to the action of visible rays of light, either without giving erroneous reactions at all, or making single mistakes.” Furthermore, the intensity of thermal emission was monitored and was, in all series of experiments, significantly less than the lowest absolute threshold of thermal sensitivity [8] (i.e. there was no possibility that the test subjects were detecting light based on the feeling of warmth on their hands).

In another series of experiments, subjects were trained to not only detect the illumination of the hand, but also to distinguish between green and red light. What is important for us here is the very reliable fact that specially organized (unusual) activity leads to unusual results (today this is called ‘parapsychological,’ ‘extrasensory’), which are the products of the activity. “For from the point of view of the principal research hypothesis, the main question is whether, in the given experimental conditions (activities, whereby research subjects act in accordance with the experimental task), typically non-perceivable stimuli transform into perceivable ones” [8]. Leontiev answers this question in the affirmative.


*Part of an essay originally published in: Psychology, Journal of the Higher School of Economics University, 2015. Vol. 12. No 2. pp. 93-111.



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